The 2013 release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim brought the term “kaiju” into popularity for a brief moment and at least made it a household term among the denizens of geekdom. The film defines the term as the Japanese for “giant monster,” but this is wrong. The meaning most commonly cited is “strange beast,” and daikaiju refers specifically to the gargantuan size of the creatures. Ordinary interpretations of kaiju by audiences in North America and Europe carry with them the assumption that they represent a continuation of distinctly American giant monsters. In point of fact, it is the strangeness of these creatures of unusual size that marks them off from their cousins in Hollywood. Indeed, they are in many ways a product of a sensibility that recalls the tradition of Weird Fiction.
Born in the sequence of films starting with the 1954 Gojira and flowering into the full spectacle of the 1961 Mothra, the kaiju genre emerged in dialectical tension with the American “giant monster on the loose” films, themselves most commonly a subset of the popular atomic horror cinema that played on Cold War anxieties. Those American films, technically beginning with the 1933 King Kong but really taking off with the Ray Harryhausen films of the 1950s (including The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, one of the causal forces behind the production of Gojira) were predicated upon a formula that saw giant monsters as big animals who would eventually be dispatched by modern weaponry.
Whether their origin was atomic radiation (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms), interplanetary excursions (20 Million Miles to Earth), or Orientalist dreamscapes (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), the creatures were necessarily animalistic and driven by basic instincts. Or, at least what the filmmakers imagined animal instincts to be like. Though inspired by this genre, the films pioneered by Toho and its intrepid director Ishiro Honda (who would later work with Akira Kurosawa on numerous films) emerged as a distinct genre at least by the 1961 Mothra.
From the beginning the creatures began to grow into a more gargantuan size than anything dreamed up by Hollywood, both in terms of physical scale and in terms of symbolic import. Hearkening back more to the sensibility of King Kong, in which the protagonist-monster carried a complex net of meanings atop of the Empire State Building alongside Faye Wraye, these films imbued their monsters with a kind of divine sensibility. In many ways they represented not the interstitial grotesqueries of nature disfigured by human malfeasance, but rather something like spirits of the Earth transformed by the modern age. Origin stories carried with them reference to prehistoric beasts and atomic radiation, but they also carried with them references to a mythosphere that had been jarred by the developments of modern society, notably in the lore of the Odo Island residents in Gojira, the villages of the Kitakami River in Varan, and the natives of Infant Island in Mothra.
The kaiju came to be science fictional versions of mythical beings. Seemingly timeless and indestructible, the creatures became forces of nature rather than mere animals. Their morphological relations with animals were mere allusions to the unfoldings of evolutionary history rather than direct products of them. In the design work of Akira Watanabe, the creatures were inspired by romanticized and folkoric versions of creatures from dinosaurs, to insects, to moths, and more. But with the “Monster Boom” of the 1960s, a period of massive box office hits across the entire Japanese film industry, came the development of the television show Ultra Q, and the development of the “Ultra” series that would become the longest running science fiction franchise in history—aside from Doctor Who of course—and inaugurate a further transformation of the kaiju. From this point, kaiju would throw off the shackles of nature and begin to resemble surrealistic phantasms under the influence of the design work of Tohl Narita. To use a very dialectical phrase, the kaiju came to resemble their own essence even more under the influence of his sculpt work.
The sensibility in Ultra Q prefigured the cinematic debut of yokai in the form of a trilogy of films including Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare, Yokai Monsters: One Hundred Ghosts, and Yokai Monsters: Along With Ghosts. Collectively these formed a cinematic representation of a uniquely Japanese folkloric tradition centered around the yokai, which roughly translated means something like “ghost” or “strange apparition,” and is constructed from the kanji characters for “bewitching; attractive, calamity” and “apparition; mystery; suspicious.” These beings were not intrusions into the world, but rather co-continuous with it. Like the kami—divine spirits of nature—the yokai are simply a part of the order of things, it is just that the order of the world is particularly weird.
In China Miéville’s essay on Weird Fiction in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, he notes that the ostensible grandfather of the Weird, H.P. Lovecraft, produced works which effected “…a surrender to the ineluctability of the Weird, again implying no irruption of strangeness into a status quo, but a Weird Universe” (512). This necessitates a “focus on awe, and its undermining of the quotidian…obsession with numinosity under the everyday is at the heart of Weird Fiction” (510). He situates the emergence of the Weird as a dialectical unfolding from the Gothic tradition, as much an heir as a break from it and its “Hauntalogical” sensibility. In essence, the Weird represents a sensibility which uncovers the startling fact that the world itself is already bizarre, rather than a kind of running realist narrative periodically punctuated by fantastic energies.
The transformations of the Japanese folkloric traditions in the middle of the twentieth century into the yokai monsters and kaiju of cinema constitutes a similar move to the development of Weird Fiction in Europe and North America. Whereas the Weird was, in the European context, a kind of “revolutionary teratology” which broke from traditional imagery of werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and so forth, in the Japanese context a science fictionalization—even within more fantasy-driven narratives—of the folkloric beings formed the basis for the construction of a Weird sensibility. As many have pointed out, Lovecraftian tentacles represented a new kind of monstrosity within the European context but simply recalled a long history within Japanese fantasy.
Much the same kind of sensibility is to be found among the kaiju, particularly in the form of Ultra Q. The “giant monsters on the loose” of American cinema were primarily interstitial beings; that is, “creatures in whom two distinct, sometimes even contradictory, conditions of existence interact” (Csicsery-Ronay Jr., 195). In some ways the kaiju do represent a version of this grotesque identity, but “seem to have an ontological legitimacy that Western sf does not supply” (196). That is to say, they are impacted by the world of radiation, environmental destruction, genetic engineering, and so on but carry with them a weight that suggests they belong to the same world we inhabit.
For Ultra Q, the influences were from the American series The Twilight Zone as well as the previous run of Toho kaiju movies. This formed the context of the transformation of kaiju by a surreal teratology. From the clam-headed, coin-spewing Kanegon, to the foliage-meets-ghoul Garamon (a design later employed for the diminutive and exceedingly Weird kaiju of cuteness, Pigmon), to Baloonga, Ultra Q pioneered an enweirding of an already bizarre class of being. In the subsequent Ultraman series and its infinite spin-offs this tradition would continue to generate ever more unthinkable beings of unusual size. The influence of this revolution in kaiju design can even be seen at work in the later installments of the Godzilla franchise, from the slime mold Hedorah to the cyborgs Gigan and Megalon.
The critical import of the kaiju began to wane as the installments turned to pandering, super-heroization, and marketing exclusively (rather than simultaneously appealing to both) to children while eschewing adult audiences. Though various Ultra series would retain aspects of the critical consciousness of what came before, nothing ever aspired to the social commentary or artistic vision of Gojira, Mothra, or Ultra Q. Excellent kaiju films would be made in the future, but none of them quite captured the essence of what had come before in the sequence that ran roughly from 1954 to the close of the 1960s.
In the contemporary era, kaiju are enjoying a kind of renaissance. With Pacific Rim, the creatures roared back onto the big screen complete with a shot of fun and inspiration from the anime and mech genres. Screenwriter Travis Beacham noted his inspiration for the film came while imagining a gargantuan Lovecraftian being emerging from the ocean (showing us the ease with which kaiju and the traditional denizens of the Weird relate to one another). In his commentary on the film, del Toro noted that his film was meant to be a “love letter” to both the kaiju and mech genres, and that it took direct inspiration in creature design from the Weird sensibilities of Takayama.
Homage to the ontological status of the kaiju was also paid by Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla film which positions the kaiju in the natural history of Earth, but nonetheless denotes their strangeness. Indeed, the running theme of humanity having lost control of its own world after having awakened—a kind of remembering of weirdness—divine creatures from their ancient slumber permeates the film and connects it with the lineage of Honda and Tsubaraya. Though subject to a healthy dose of criticism, one cannot deny that the film at least constructed a kaiju mythos that paid homage to what came before it.
The takeaway from our meditation is that attempts to parcel off the kaiju into the various genres whose borders are guarded by the needs of profit rather than the energies of aesthetics ultimately do a disservice. The science fictionalization of fantastic elements, the remembering and awakening of the weirdness of our own world, the ontological respect of ostensibly interstitial being: these form the background of the meaning of kaiju. One cannot look at a creature like Godzilla, Mothra, Kanegon, or Gamera as mutated animal or a mere addition to the fauna of a natural world. Rather they are the fellow inhabitants of a world which is ontologically weird and populated by numerous grotesqueries underlying our everyday world.